Archive for the ‘October 2014’ Category

Etching out a track in science

In October 2014 on October 27, 2014 at 12:48 pm

Kirsti career science

Kirsti: Last week Radio National’s Life Matters show featured a segment on early career researchers. Natasha Mitchell posed the question,

“Are we at risk of losing a generation of young scientists?”

I say yes, we are.

If you are under the age of 60 and in science, I’d suggest you listen to the podcast of that show. It chews the fat on some very important issues for science in Australia, for individuals in an already volatile labour market but also those trying to understand our planet, our place in it, and our potential to shape it.

Insecure short term contracts, tightening of funding for science, and lack of generational change in research teams were the main topics that were tackled on the show. There was also resounding consensus by the interviewees that etching a career in research in Australia at this time is hard.

Casualisation of the academic work force is happening all over Australia. I know, as I am directly impacted — partly by choice, partly not. I believe the shift to casual employment undermines the skills and value of workers, and provides no means of progressing upward. Furthermore, there is little to no opportunity to build a cohesive academic culture with casuals. Typically they don’t feel motivated to become a ‘real’ part of an institution that doesn’t want them ‘officially’, but is willing to exploit their talents for a teaching semester (or 12) or a special project. Needless to say, this is extremely damaging to scientists and – going beyond remuneration – it helps to maintain what Doug Hilton from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute for Medical Research in Melbourne calls ‘perpetual scientific adolescence’, or the ‘career neverland’.

Lack of generational change in research teams is a relatively recent phenomenon. Little turnover in the workforce since the 1970’s meant that older researchers were retained and those coming out of postdocs never really got the same chance to become independent. Consequently, researchers that spend a decade or more refining their skills aren’t faced with job ads and gaps to fill. Instead, they are continually more reliant on senior researchers for funding and positions within research teams. They never really get a chance to flourish, to be innovative lead researchers in their own right.

The treadmill starts there – with few to no grants to their name they’re less competitive, and being less competitive won’t land you a permanent job. Round we go.

The lack of funding for science compounds this problem, as the competition for money favours track record and productivity, not potential. So early and mid-career researchers are once again reliant on permanent, senior academics to be primary investigators on grants. The names on applications are the established scientists’; the brilliant ideas come from the younger scientists who are in the prime of their innovative and focussed careers. Round we go again.

Recently I’ve been thinking that staying in science and research without a permanent job is sort of like owning your own small business. Lots fail. Not the majority, but lots. You have to find your own salary every year. You are constantly chasing contacts, leads and potential for the next project or funding round. As a casual, you are doing this with no holiday pay, super or other benefits, and many do it while parenting on an almost full time basis. Lastly, it’s not looking like anything is going to change anytime soon.

I must admit, I am super happy with my decisions around my career trajectory. I am making conscious non-traditional stories around how to blend research with education, communication and understanding of nature (both engendering and sustaining a connection with it). It’s hard in many respects, but I like a challenge. Part time everything seems to be the answer for me.

But I really feel for those brilliant young things who have never, or who will never get a chance to discover their potential as a lead researcher.

Australia is far worse off for it.

[image thanks to wiredforlego on flickr]


Museums, meh?

In October 2014 on October 20, 2014 at 2:26 pm


Sarah: I love museums. I get a kick out of the science, the history and the culture found in museums large and small, local and international, rich and poor.

But I know not everyone is the same as me. I get that many people would rather not spend an afternoon browsing amongst stuffed mammals, touching geological samples or listening to sounds from the Antarctic. That’s ok, I can deal.

But even if you’d rather wash your hair than visit a biodiversity gallery, I hope the following story will convince you that museums are important.

In 2013, South Australian scientist John Long was working in a museum in Estonia. John is a palaeontologist, and an expert in mapping out how us humans managed to evolve from vertebrates which occupied our world millions and millions of years ago.

Checking out miscellaneous samples that had been sitting around in boxes and not perceived to be of much value, he picked up fossilised bones from a fish. This fish had lived in the seas around Scotland millions of years ago. And something clicked. This fish had a clasper! A clasper is a small boney structure which early male fishy vertebrates used to help deposit sperm inside early female fishy vertebrates. The exciting thing was that this fossil placed penetrative ‘boy on girl’ sex way back in time — 385 million years back, to be precise — and far earlier than it had previously been believed to be happening.

The discovery triggered a detailed analysis of other fossils of the same species and a major paper in the top-ranked journal Nature. It will possibly change how scientists think about sex, evolution, genes, and biodiversity. Yeah, it’s big.

But from my point of view there’s another exciting part of the story. Stuff in museums is valuable. Stuff in museums holds secrets just waiting to be told. Stuff in museums can change our lives! If we could just get a bit more funding around to allow scientists with appropriate training to get in there and work through those boxes.

Here’s a story I wrote on this exciting finding for The Lead South Australia.

Happy Birthday Siding Springs! (#starfest2014)

In October 2014 on October 9, 2014 at 7:46 am

Kirsti starfest1 Khaiam with sun

Kirsti: The telescopes at ANU’s Siding Springs Observatory in the Warrumbungle National Park are having birthdays! FOUR birthdays in fact. And they celebrated recently with one of the best programs for Starfest2014 to date.

The Warrumbungle Festival of the Stars is on right now, and runs until Monday 27th of October. It’s the community’s way of saying “we love astronomy and art!”, and Starfest2014 is a part of it. The event attracts professional and amateur astronomers from all over Australia, as well as families, tourists, travellers and science nerds from near and far.

I happened to go this year, and boy do I wish I’d had some more kid-free time for the adult stuff! There was Science in the Pub with Radio National’s Robyn Williams, and an all-star cast (pun intended) including @astropixie. There were talks by amaze-balls astronomers like Fred Watson and Nobel Prize winner Brian Schmidt, and astronaut Andy Thomas giving the Bok Lecture!

We got to see some talks for kids, and spent time in the exploratory centre at Siding Springs. Here I learnt I would weigh almost 2 tonnes on the sun but only about 10 kgs on the Moon (note to self: go there some day).

But we were absolutely blown away by the sheer size and workings of the Anglo-Australian Telescope, operated by the Australian Astronomical Observatory. It turned 40 this year, having taken its first photos in 1974. Over its life it has detected clouds near the surface of Venus, photographed the explosion of the Supernova 1987A (allowing astronomers’ unprecedented understanding of the death of a star), and identified (for the first time) an isolated brown dwarf star in our Galaxy! These, and oh, just a few other spectacularly life-changing things….

We were able to walk around inside it, stare in awe at the 3.9m diameter mirror, and then walk out onto the observation deck about 26m up, with the most incredible view of the Warrumbungle National Park ever!

Kirsti starfest 2 Warrumbungle panorama

So even though I am into tiny things with six legs on our own planet, Starfest2014 succeeded in blowing my mind with big picture space science. It’s worth the drive out there at this time of year as all the wildflowers are out too.

Ahhhh, school holidays, why are you over?!

Animals for life

In October 2014 on October 7, 2014 at 8:45 am

Mia FlickrLaughingMonk

Sarah: You may remember a previous SFL365 guest post Poo for good and not evil. Written by Mia Cobb, it talked about a cool project which used dog poo as a source of energy to power lights in public places.

Today Mia is back again to tell us about one of her current passions, a podcast which explores the science of our lives with animals. Over to you Mia!

Mia: The human world is filled with animals. Pets, wildlife, farms and zoos are important to so many people. But did you ever stop and wonder why?

Why are so many of us fascinated with other species? And what impact does that have on our lives? What can we learn about ourselves from animals, and how can we make the world a better place for both human and non-human animals?

Human Animal Science is a regular podcast hosted by me with Tim Adams in which we take a scientific view of the world of human and animal interactions.

The field of human animal science — also known as Anthrozoology — is a growing multidisciplinary field of enquiry, and one that produces fascinating topics. Together, Tim and I are lifelong learners in science and we come together to share our passion for science in this unique podcast.

Since starting in 2013, we’ve spoken to a diverse group of enthusiastic scientists from all around the world to explore questions like:

How can reading to a dog help develop children’s literacy skills?

What is the incredible archaeological backstory to that chicken wishbone from your roast dinner?

Why do pet cats like boxes so much?

How do our cultural experiences influence how people think about animals?

What can we do to address the importance of human-animal relationships to improve outcomes in disaster survival?

Is that stray cat in your neighbourhood a threat, or possibly a caretaker, to biodiversity?

When we talk about a dog’s guilty look, or grumpy cat, we attribute animals with human characteristics – does it matter?

In the next couple of months the Human Animal Science crew will celebrate our first birthday. We’ll be featuring great conversations with more scientists about the importance of bees to our everyday lives, how aerial drones are aiding conservation ecologists and how observing chimpanzees in the depth of Uganda can help us learn about the emergence of human language – we hope you’ll join us!

Tune in to Human Animal Science:






[image thanks to LaughingMonk on flickr]